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100 years of BYU: Institution evolution

Big BYU has grown into the lofty title it assumed in 1903

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PROVO — One hundred years after President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore the American West, President Teddy Roosevelt prepared to sign a treaty to give American ships access to a canal through Panama.

It was fall 1903, and with far less notice than Roosevelt was getting in the White House, the Wright Brothers headed to Kitty Hawk, N.C., to continue experiments in human flight — considered by some the "standard of impossibility" — for a fourth year. This time, on Dec. 17, their invention would fly 852 feet.

It was the year Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company, and the year of the first Tour de France. It was also the year a small parochial academy in Utah made an audacious proposal that its name be changed from Brigham Young Academy to Brigham Young University.

The school in Provo had done nothing to warrant the change. It had but 64 college students mixed in among classes for kindergarten, elementary and high school students. In fact, school officials had staved off elimination of the college courses just two years earlier, arguing they were good competition for the University of Utah. LDS Church leaders relented, concerned that they would lose control of matters at the state university that might be maintained at a church university.

So in September 1903, Academy President Benjamin Cluff proposed separating out the school's college students to establish a "Joseph Smith College." The Board of Trustees rejected the idea, but agreed to change the school's name from academy to university.

It was hardly ready for so lofty a title. The campus was located in what is now central Provo, with only some athletic fields on Temple Hill, from where BYU would spread east and north over the next century. At least one person, Anthon H. Lund, a member of the LDS Church's First Presidency, was uneasy about the name change. On Sept. 30, he wrote in his journal, "I hope their head will grow big enough for the hat."

Of course, a century of discovery and invention later, BYU's hat is too small for its head. It has evolved from a podunk school for Mormon kids snuggled in quaint, isolated Utah Valley to become the second-largest private university in the United States, with more than 30,000 students. The landlocked campus is expanding its reach through technology, with more than 100,000 people around the world taking online courses each year.

It also is considered one of the nation's best colleges, according to numerous independent rankings. Admissions standards have risen dramatically. In the 1950s, a student needed a 2.0 grade-point average to qualify for admission. Today, the incoming freshman class averages a 3.75 GPA.

And yet, remarkably, little has changed in the way of the school's mission. When Brigham Young endowed the academy in 1875, he believed Utah had too many secular schools and wanted a place where "the doctrines of the gospel (would) be taught" and that "the revelation of the Lord (would be used as) texts." For the past 100 years, that mandate has grated against a second charge, to develop a university with a worldwide reputation for academic excellence.

One of Brigham Young's successors as LDS Church president, Heber J. Grant, announced in 1940 that "the one supreme and only reason that this institution has been established is to make better Latter-day Saints," but the issue has hardly ever been as simple as that sounded.

When Elder Dallin H. Oaks, now a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve, was president of BYU, he frequently addressed the tension between the religious and the secular at the university.

"BYU is more than a university in the conventional sense," he told faculty. "Its domain spans the limit of human experience, spiritual as well as physical. . . . It is concerned with teaching the fundamentals of spiritual and secular knowledge. This is the nature of the challenge to the university."

The challenge is daunting, President Oaks added, but ending the separation between science and religion could produce substandard performance.

The attempt met an early challenge. By 1911, the controversial subject of evolution had claimed the jobs of three professors. Joseph Peterson and Ralph Chamberlin resigned rather than stop teaching the subject, and Henry Peterson was fired. The university now, of course, allows the teaching of evolution.

Orthodoxy among professors has long been required. From 1959 to 1964, President Ernest L. Wilkinson managed to obtain access to the church's tithing rolls and withheld promotions from professors who didn't pay a full tithing, according to "A House of Faith," a history of BYU by Gary James Bergera and Ronald Priddis. In the early 1990s, a professor was among several denied tenure or released in part because she had a following among students who prayed to "Mother in Heaven."

New BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson said this summer that he expects few problems with faculty orthodoxy because of comprehensive interviews the church's General Authorities conduct with every prospective faculty member; they know from the start what is expected.

Both school and church officials unabashedly champion BYU's unusual purposes.

Brigham Young University is a "showcase for Mormonism," Elder Robert L. Simpson, a leader of the church, said in 1965. That view hasn't dimmed.

University Athletic Director Val Hale recently apologized to BYU football fans frustrated that TV controls the dates and times of games. But Hale said one reason the university agrees to scheduling changes is the desire for the football team to be a showcase for the church.

The same principle is in play when administrators express delight that BYU has been named the nation's No. 1 "stone-cold sober" school for five consecutive years — a reputation for teetotaling is desirable.

Those on campus who want to see BYU's academic reputation continue its ascent sometimes chafe at the school's place in the church's culture, such as allusions to BYU as the "world's largest LDS dating service." But again, church leaders have endorsed that role, too.

"The chief benefit of coming to Brigham Young University is to lay the foundation of celestial marriage," Elder Bruce R. McConkie said in 1955. Elder A. Theodore Tuttle seconded the notion in 1972: "A part of the plan is to find a partner and marry. That is one reason I appreciate BYU and its great mission in this regard."

BYU is fortunate to be around to experience such debates, historians say.

One early coup was the purchase of 17 acres on Temple Hill for $125 an acre in February 1904. Another was an end-run around the church college in Logan. President George Brimhall got the Church Board of Education to agree in 1908 that BYU would be the official college for church teachers. Shocked, the Logan school protested, to no avail, and the Provo school's role in the church was cemented.

In 1914, the school's debts reached a monumental $185,000. A gift of $20,000 from Jesse Knight and a loan from a church-held company helped, but by 1918 the university still owed $113,500, according to "A School of Destiny," an official BYU history edited by Wilkinson.

Finally, the church stepped in and, in exchange for the school's real estate, assumed the obligations. The school's financial independence was surrendered but the deal was critical to the future. BYU is subsidized by church tithing funds. According to Bergera and Priddis, university expenditures reached $500 million in the mid-1980s, and church funds paid for one-third of those costs.

The BYU experiment is a success, in terms of numbers and rankings and job placements. For example, BYU is recognized as the best in the nation at turning research dollars into inventions and new companies, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. But the tension remains. According to Bergera and Priddis, research outside BYU shows that religion and scholarship are typically incompatible and that the more students are exposed to college, the more they apostatize from their religious backgrounds.

However, a BYU study uncovered an opposite effect among LDS students. It confirmed that the more educated members of other religions become, the less active in their churches they are, said Elder Merrill J. Bateman, whose tenure as BYU president ended this spring, in a recent interview with the Deseret Morning News. However, the more education LDS Church members receive, the more active they are in their church.

That data help explain the church's decision to have BYU concentrate chiefly on undergraduate education so it can accommodate the most students.

"BYU's a very important part of the Church," Elder Bateman said. "We're providing educations to 30,000 young people expected to be leaders, expected to excel in their disciplines. Our impact on them is very important."

President Samuelson reiterated BYU's charter last week, quoting from the university's mission statement: "Remember, in all that we do, our mission is to 'assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life.' "

That charge includes education, but for 100 years, church and university leaders have known that meant more than classroom learning.

LDS congregations around the world benefit from the presence of BYU graduates, said Paul Eastman, a professor of mechanical engineering.

"I spent 20 years in Ohio and saw what people from BYU did for us," he said. "Wherever they went, they stepped into elders quorum presidencies, Relief Society presidencies. They helped people who didn't understand the church see the vision of what it should be.

"I also really think when our engineers go out and interact with their supervisors and peers, those people wonder how they can be active members of the church, have a good family and great kids and still do well at work. And they do. They know how to balance their work because of their time at BYU. Those people aren't seeing the great academic performance of BYU. What they're seeing is young people doing well, across the board.

"The best fruits of BYU," Eastman continued, "are the thousands and thousands of undergraduates, and graduates and doctor-level students, coming out of BYU."

E-MAIL: twalch@desnews.com